Monthly Archives: June 2017

Released

The strike indicator dropped quietly below the water’s surface, I gently lifted with the tip of my fly rod to set the hook, and the line went taught. Suddenly, a dark shadow bolted across the river channel toward deeper water, line spilled from my reel as the drag gears let out a whine. The fish shot downstream, using the current and powerful tail to strain my light tackle. Ed our guide pulled hard against the oar handles of the Mackenzie boat I shared with my father, we entered fast water, moving downstream with the fish still on the line.  “Trout Re-location Project,” Ed quipped loudly over the roar of a short section of rapids while looking for quiet water to fight the fish.  Ed eased us into an eddy and the boat gently drifted upstream; the fish was still on.

My father and I had hired Ed, a seasoned fishing guide, to float us down the South Fork of the Snake River in Idaho for catch-and-release fly fishing. It was late summer, the air was crisp, and the colors had not yet started to change.  The “Snake” begins as a trickle in Yellowstone National Park, flows past the Tetons, and across Idaho on a 1000-mile journey to the Columbia River.  The 10-mile section we were fishing that day was about 100 yards wide, several feet deep, and constantly dividing into smaller channels, pools, and rapids.  This run was famous for its abundant natural Yellowstone cutthroat trout, our main objective for the day.

Ed set up our rods with a nine-foot tapered nylon leader and a very thin and light tippet, to which he attached one of the smallest flies I have ever fished.  He called it a “Sunday Night,” just a piece of dark fuzz tied to a 1/4-inch barbless hook to resemble an emerging nymph.  A small weight delivered the fly below the surface, into the feeding lanes.

I stood at the bow of the rocking Mackenzie boat, my knees locked into supports, fly rod in both hands, as I battled the fish which shot up and down the river. The fish eventually began to tire and I could pull it in, only to have it explode with new-found energy across the current, dragging 25 yards of line with it. The fish finally seemed to give up – we both had had enough.  As it slowly swam toward the boat, being led by my line, I could see that it was a beautiful 20-inch cutthroat trout with brown spots on its yellow-green body, and a distinctive red splash below his jaw line. My father gently lowered the landing net into the water, the fish broke the surface, thrashed from side to side, dislodged the hook and broke free.  Released, it swam off to be caught another day.

 

 

My Grandfather’s Hawk

My grandfather stood on my backyard deck overlooking the tree tops and the valley below. With his hands cupped to his mouth and head tilted back, he let out a screech, “Cheeeeeeewv.”  We held our breath and listened.  Nothing. Again, he screeched, “Cheeeeeeewv, cheeeewv.”  We listened.  Far off down the hill came a faint raspy reply, “Cheeeeewv.”  Again, we heard the reply, only this time much closer.  My grandfather answered with a screech and then there appeared a magnificent wild Red-tailed Hawk, with a 30-inch wingspan and bright orange/red tail feathers, alighting on a branch no more than 20 feet from us. I was awestruck. The hawk studied us for a few minutes before flying off.  My grandfather would call several more Red-tailed Hawks to my backyard during the summer he visited California, when I was a boy.

My grandfather grew up in the rolling hills of central Wisconsin at the beginning of the 20th century. He was the eldest son of a Danish immigrant who homesteaded 40 acres outside the town of Waupaca.  As a young man, he left the farm, studied journalism in Madison, and eventually became a professor at Oregon State.  He never forgot, though, his rural boyhood – chasing rabbits through the damp green grass, digging up nightcrawlers, or learning to call Red-tailed Hawks out of the woods.

Several years after my grandfather died, Marcia and I were traveling with our trailer through Michigan and Wisconsin.  On a whim, we decided to try to find the old homestead.  With the help of the Waupaca Historical Society and a period map, we found the farm.  An abandoned chicken coop, converted to living quarters long ago, was all that remained.  Vines grew into the rafters and a tractor sat rusting in the front yard under an ancient walnut tree. August humidity made our clothes cling as we tromped around the site, looking for clues to my grandfather’s childhood – and in some sense my own.

I noticed a small family graveyard across the street and I eased over to study the markers.  The grass was neatly trimmed around the marble and granite gravestones, old and new. A familiar sound from the edge of the adjacent woods caught my attention.  But then it was quiet; again I focused on the gravestones. “Cheeeeeeewv.” A beautiful Red-tailed Hawk suddenly swooped from a tree top, muscular wings beating the heavy air as it sailed past my head, across the clearing, and off into the woods.  He made one last call, “Cheeewv,” before disappearing. In that instant encounter I felt a connection, this bird and I.  This was my grandfather’s hawk.

The Open Road

How I long to be self-sufficient and free – an explorer in uncharted territory, a cowboy on the open range, a vagabond with nowhere in particular to go – traveling without schedules, reservations, or connections, having responsibilities to no one but myself and my companion.  The open road before me, my worries behind.

All that I need – food, clothes, bed – I carry with me. I can stop where I wish, explore where I wish.  Once I have liberated myself from everyday burdens, my mind clears; I see life with a new and exciting perspective.

Traveling with a trailer gives me surprising freedom and opens adventures for which I can’t possibly plan. Try it sometime.

Shredded

“Alex, we have a problem,” Marcia announced as we were parking the Airstream trailer at a lakefront campsite in Missouri. My jaw dropped when I made my way around to the side and noticed one trailer tire was gone. Not just flat, but gone!

All that remained on the left front wheel was a small shredded strip of the sidewall. I had no idea that I had been driving, for who knows how long, with a bad tire. Fortunately, our trailer has tandem wheels and independent axles, and will pull well on just one set of tires. The manual guided me through the tire exchange process. I elevated the remaining good tire on leveling blocks and could get the spare on without having to use a jack.

While pulling our trailer, it is common for occasional passing cars, especially those of fellow “Airstreamers,” to toot their horn or flash their lights.  On our way to this campground, while travelling down country roads in the heartland of America, I had thought the locals were being unusually friendly by the way they honked, waved, flashed their lights, and gestured.  Next time this happens, instead of just waving back with a smile, I am going to check my tires.

 

On The Trail to Mistymoon

A hunting knife hung from his belt as he stood midstream helping his barefoot girlfriend cross the slippery rocks; clear water wetted the bottom of his rolled-up jeans.  Marcia and I were next to cross the creek and we sat on the bank to remove our boots. Watching the couple climb the far bank, I couldn’t fathom why he needed to carry such a big knife.

This was the first stream crossing on our day-hike to Mistymoon Lake in the Big Horn Mountains of Wyoming.  We had selected this trail because it promised panoramic vistas, alpine meadows, wildflowers, and solitude. I had brought a pocketknife while “Buck,” here, was packing a 10-inch blade. “Did they have Grizzlies in the Big Horns?” Now I was wondering if I was woefully under-armed.

“Buck” and his girlfriend were gone by the time we got across to the other side and we never saw them again.  Our hike to Mistymoon continued.

Coming down the trail, an hour or so later, the Boy Scout looked like a horse headed to a barn. His head hung low, arms dangled at his side, and his backpack dragged behind him as he passed.  “Scout” made no eye contact or salutation.  We could see that all he could think about was getting out of these mountains to a shower and a bed. The rest of the bedraggled troop followed a few minutes behind, stirring up dust as they shuffled by.  We continued on to Mistymoon.

“Howdy Partner?” the chipper father bellowed as he and his family of six were about to overtake us on an especially steep section of the trail.  Mom, dad, and the four stair-step blond children were much too perfect.  All had matching khaki shorts with button-up safari shirts.  I was sure their little knapsacks, perched high on their backs, held all the articles necessary for a safe and joyful day-trip to the mountains.  As “Captain von Trapp” and his brood marched on, we could almost hear them singing.

We stopped at Mistymoon Lake for lunch and to soak up the beauty of the serene deep blue water surrounded by dark grey granite cliffs and 12,000-foot snowy peaks.  A cool breeze announced heavy clouds coming over the mountains, the mosquitos were relentless, and we had six more miles to hike back to the car; we cut our lunch short and headed back down the trail.

In a light-green meadow, with yellow and purple wildflowers splashed between morainic hills, the trail opened.  An elderly man could be seen in the distance, slowly hiking our way.  His tanned muscular arms and legs, walking stick, and tidy backpack suggested that he was a veteran of these mountains.  He stopped to talk. He was a semi-retired pediatrician from Sheridan, who came to the mountains often, and was going to be out for a week.  Though he appeared experienced and knowledgeable, it seemed to us a little foolish to be backpacking alone at his age.  “No worries my friends,” he said, “I have a GPS tracker. My wife is at home monitoring my every step.”  He showed us a small device clipped to the top of his pack, no larger than a cigarette lighter, which beamed his coordinates into the sky and back down to his living room.

“The Doctor” was a very delightful and interesting man with whom we could have continued to talk.  But he interrupted saying, “I’ve got to get going, you see my wife is watching my progress on her laptop and if I stop here on the trail too long she will worry that I am injured.”  We parted ways in opposite directions.

Back down at the creek we again took our boots off to cross, holding on to each other in the rushing water.  Halfway across the freezing stream I handed Marcia a stick for support and left her there to retrieve my camera.  I wanted to capture this moment with a photo, a maneuver I would at once regret as she protested the abandonment. Later that evening, after she eventually forgave me for the stream photo event, we had a good chuckle over “Buck,” “Scout,” “Captain,” “The Doctor,” and “The Photographer” – characters along the trail to Mistymoon.

 

 

 

 

 

Over-Planning

I am a planner, always have been.  I make lists and spreadsheets to try to corral the inherent entropy of life.  Order, containment, and anticipation give me comfort. I like to know where I am headed and when. So, it gave me great pause when several years ago a good friend, with whom I have tremendous respect, offered some sound advice saying, “Nothing ruins a great vacation more than over-planning.”  Ouch!

But he is right and I have tried, by the hardest, to adhere to his admonition.  When charting a road trip with our trailer, I now try to leave holes in the itinerary, not only for contingencies such as weather, traffic, and breakdown, but also for the magic of the unexpected – the sunsets, rainbows, wildlife, dramatic surf, full moons, hungry cutthroat trout, second round of craft beer, and extra bird songs with our morning coffee.

Now, don’t confuse lack of over-planning with not being prepared.  I have equipment lists for the trailer, list of contacts and emergency procedures, packing lists for Marcia and I, and lists of lists.  I like to think I am prepared for whatever might happen.  But the best memories we bring home from our vacations usually arise from unplanned adventures we just stumble upon.  Leave room in your vacation plans for the magic.